By Peter Gleason
It’s not every night that undefeated Villanova can crow about players who are not guards or small forwards making a big contribution.
But coach Jay Wright was doing just that about 6-11 junior center Daniel Ochefu after Tuesday night’s 73-59 victory over Illinois in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
The Wildcats (9-0) shot 61.5 percent from the field in the second half and ended the game on a 23-9 run, after Illinois came from behind at halftime to tie the score at 50-50 with 8:32 remaining.
After struggling to convert from outside throughout the evening, Villanova looked inside to Ochefu, who has become an offensive threat, one of about a half-dozen the Wildcats employ on a given night. Ochefu finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks, but Wright was happiest with his 10 second-half points.
“If we didn’t get that tonight, we wouldn’t win the game,” Wright said. “They were an outstanding perimeter defensive team, outstanding. We had zero 3s at halftime.”
Dylan Ennis (photo above) scored 18 points, but, “It’s never one guy taking over the game,” Ennis said. “I think that’s what’s so great about us. We play as a team no matter if we are up or down, or in a tie game. I never thought of taking over the game. I just wanted to do what I do for the team and try and get the win.”
Darren Hilliard also scored 12 points as part of Villanova’s collective effort.
“A really good win for us against a very, very good team,” Wright said. “There were spurts of that game that looked really ugly, but it was two very good defensive teams.”
The Wildcats had five players score eight or more points. It’s the kind of balanced scoring that Wright would like to consistently get from his team.
“As a coach you feel really fortunate to have a lot of weapons like that and guys that will accept that from each other,” Wright said.
Malcolm Hill scored a career-high 20 points for Illinois (7-2).
Rayvonte Rice, the leading scorer for the Illini, struggled from the field, shooting 4 of 13 to score just 10 points.
“In the last eight minutes I thought (Villanova) was smarter. I thought they were tougher. I thought they executed better. I thought they were more cohesive. I thought they had more grit and obviously we’re not real thrilled about that,” Illinois coach John Grove said.
Villanova went on a 15-4 run after Ochefu’s layup at 6:21 of the second half and then slowly pulled away.
Villanova broke open the game with a 13-2 run that began at 15:13 of the first half, which gave the Wildcats a 21-11 lead.
Illinois fought back and went on an 11-4 run to cut the deficit to 25-22. But they could get no closer and Villanova went ahead 33-27 at the half.